5 Lessons Seattle Can Teach Other Cities About Amazon
A maritime, export-based economy that has long looked more toward Asia and Alaska than to the rest of America was already here when Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, arrived in 1994 and began selling books from his garage. So was a history of art and music that runs from Quincy Jones through Nirvana and Pearl Jam, part of the mystique that has drawn young people for generations. Seattle’s percentage of millennial-age people, 25 to 34, is near the highest in the nation among big cities, according to 2015 estimates by the census.
A collective corporate cultural ethos had been built as well by other companies that arose from a city of working waterfronts and gloomy skies. REI, Eddie Bauer, Starbucks, Nordstrom and Costco — not to mention Microsoft and Boeing — shaped the economic rootstock that Amazon grew from, and created an assumption by many Seattle residents that corporations should be involved in the community as civic leaders.
“There isn’t an obvious candidate where they’re going to get the same confluence of features,” said Fred H. Smith, a professor of urban economic history at Davidson College in North Carolina, who has evaluated the bid by his state’s leading HQ2 contender, Charlotte.
Seattle hit a sweet spot with the company’s rise, Professor Smith said, as Amazon tapped into an existing rich pool of talent and resources, from the University of Washington’s strengths in computer science, to cheap electricity from the Pacific Northwest’s connections to hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin.
“Finding a city that has all of those things is a tough goal,” he said.
Amazon will not be a predictable engine of change.
A company that started out selling books became one of the inventors of cloud computing as a business, selling not just goods but the invisible machinery of internet commerce itself. It has leapt into the grocery business with the recent acquisition of Whole Foods. It made a decision that employees could bring their dogs to work, and on any given day, about 1,200 pets are roaming the 33 buildings of the urban campus in the South Lake Union area.
The message to HQ2 cities is clear: What you get now will probably not be what Amazon becomes.
Change and churn have become part of the Amazon brand, and thus the Seattle brand, business people said. In the past seven years, coinciding with Amazon’s biggest growth spurt, the number of Fortune 500 companies with an office in Seattle quadrupled, to 31 from seven, many of them hunkering down as closely as they can to Amazon.
“There’s an ecosystem that has been really enhanced because of Amazon,” said Josh Simms, the chief executive of H5 Data Centers, a company based in Los Angeles that provides space for cloud-computing companies. “Amazon brought a lot of young, smart people into Seattle, so now all the big tech companies feel they need to be there as well,” he said.